Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces in real time the moments before her daughter leaves for college. The column ran every Friday in November, January, and March. It returns for a final month this August, as Jill and Indie take one final road trip together to Indie’s college campus.
“What is documented, at last, is not the thing itself but the way of seeing—the object infused with the subject.” — Mark Doty
I’m reading the billboards along I-44 East while my daughter, Indie, sleeps in the passenger seat. Today is our second seven-hour drive on our trip to her college in New York. We left Texas Wednesday, and we’ve made it through Oklahoma and Missouri. Now we’re halfway through Indiana, where I pass a sign for foot-high pies. Indie stirs and sits up, tells me she wants to drive.
We talk about that difficult year often now, turn its pages. For years we didn’t. Maybe it’s because she’s leaving, but for the past few weeks we’ve been trading stories about all the places we’ve lived, and that one comes up more than the others. What we carry from it.
Over the phone, the landlady had described the couch, the coffee table, and the desk that would be in the basement apartment before we arrived, but the day we opened the door to our new home, we found a twin bed against the wall. For a year, Indie slept on the mattress on the floor, and I slept on an air mattress on top of the box spring. Our small dining table, the only furniture we brought, took up most of the kitchen and became my writing desk.
That year, Indie walked the two blocks to the elementary school on the corner. Sixth grade. I’d go one block with her, then stand on the sidewalk and watch until she stepped through the gate. Back at the house, I’d climb the steps down to the basement to write or prepare for the two classes I taught at a university downtown. The footsteps of the man who rented a room on the first floor were heavy, unsettling. The landlady hadn’t mentioned he lived there.
We cross into Ohio, glide through unwavering greenery and billboards for antique stores. Indie passes a flatbed truck stacked with bags of grapefruit. I snap a photo.
On the fifteenth of every month that year, my mother sent me a check to help out, and she sent Indie a small stack of single dollar bills. An hour after we pulled away from that house for the last time, I checked my rearview mirror to make sure the buildings of downtown were miles behind us.
But there was beauty that year: The tree outside our landlady’s front yard—she paid me forty dollars a month to buy seed and keep the birdhouses full. All the hours those birds would flit and fly outside the window as I wrote. The sidewalk one morning after Indie and I had taken our nightly walk as she pulled petals from red tulips between our steps. The days we took off for the beach, Indie riding her scooter while I ran behind. The bookstore.
Every time we went, Indie and I’d go straight to a book she found in the children’s section. It was Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, an illustrated hardcover with a bear on the front. The book begins, “My hat is gone. I want it back.” I’d whisper-read while Indie turned the pages. We loved how the bear asks a fox and a frog and a turtle and a rabbit (wearing a red hat) and a snake and some other creature the same question, “Have you seen my hat?” And while none of them claim to have seen the hat (not even the rabbit), our favorite response was the mysterious creature’s: “What is a hat?” We’d giggle in the aisle then set the book back on the shelf, sorry to leave it behind.
At the end of that year, we moved to New Mexico, a three-day drive. On the second day, before we left a La Quinta in Amarillo, Texas, Indie gave me my birthday present. It was wrapped in paper that looked like an antique map, along with a note she had written on half a piece of white paper, as if she had carefully torn it down the middle after creasing it. The note was decorated with silly faces and hearts and stick figures (us holding hands) and I love yous.
When I pulled back the wrapping paper, there it was—the book with the bear on the cover.
Back home, I keep the book on an end table in our living room. The wrapping paper’s still inside, along with Indie’s note. I’ve always thought of the book as a map, an answer to the question, “What is a home?”
As we pass silos and barns, the miles speed by.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.